3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment

Saturday 21 April 1917 – on leave in Cairo

To Cairo by train ~ Mohammed Ali Mosque, Citadel ~ afternoon tea at Groppi’s ~ French musical at Kursaal ~ Pyramids, Sphinx ~ still hoping to go soon

Saturday 21 April 1917

Dear Ruth

I forgot to look but I think it’s your turn to have a letter. First of all this is a rotten nib but my pen is nearly dry so I’m saving it for when I’m in the old tent.

Guess where I’ve been! Only back 3 hours ago – with Lance N – to Cairo. We left here on Thursday at 10 am and our ’48 hours’ brought us to the same time Saturday when we arrived back here. Three hours travelling each way and in a decently fast and comfortable train. We rode 2nd Class although I’m not sure if it’s permissable [sic] for mere soldiers. I know we are barred from travelling 1st Class. Of course an officer may ride where he likes, whether he can afford it or not: however the ‘Gyp’ railway-ites are not very fussy about us, even if the military authorities are. You bet we had a jolly fine and most interesting time and even if it was a rather short and hurried trip, it was well worth while and a decided rest and treat for the eyes after this everlasting sand.

While I’m writing in the YM a chap is playing the goanna a’right, just going ahead without music – I can’t think what he is playing now – but it’s a piece I’ve heard well played a few times. I had a bit of a cut when I came in first. Just a bang as usual. I wish I could play – it’s a treat to hear this class of music (not mine)! compared with the ragtime, however well played, which often prevails.

To get on: we left here about 10am on Thursday and reached the big city at 1.30 – got in a gharry and drove straight to the ANZAC Hospital where we had dinner and arranged to sleep at night. After dinner we got another gharry and told the old chap to drive us round the town, First I had to go the the Exchange Telegraph Coy to send a cable for a chap and then we went ahead – saw the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, the Belgian Bank, the Grand Continental and Sheppeards Hotels, Esbekich Square, lots of big shops and warehouses – bigger than Foy & Gibsons easily – and a decent straight wide clean street.

Then up to the citadel on a hill, a military garrison place and inside is the clink of clinks where it pays a soldier to keep away from: the citadel was once occupied by Napoleon and from its commanding position he bombarded the city below. In the walls of Sultan Hassan Mosque which we went into, you can see the smashes made by the cannon and in once place outside a cannonball still rests. It has struck into the wall high up and lodged there – so says the story!

We went into the citadel grounds and from there had a fine view: out to our left were the pyramids – quite plainly shown up – about 10 miles away: down below was Old Cairo – round to the front and away out stretched Cairo with all its spires, mosques domes, big building and old hovels: out to the right we could see Heliopolis – also on a bit of rising ground and distinguishable by its fine clean appearance and big buildings. Close to us were the tombs of the Kalipha. I think you had better come and have a look at it – hills back in the distance where all the huge stones used for the building of the pyramids was supposed to have been brought.

Also within the citadel walls is the mosque of Mohammed Ali – a most gorgeous and richly furnished place inside. At the entrance we were required to put on canvas slippers over our boots (the Gyps themselves take their boots off altogether) and when we reached the inner part of the mosque the guide removed his turban and asked us to do likewise with our hats. The whole floor is covered with a thick soft carpet – dull rich red in colour – and there is a fine high dome and four quarter domes all done up with carved cedar and cut glass and stones. There are lamps and candles to the number of 2000 hanging in all directions: these are only lighted about 5 times a year, so says our guide – on very special occasions: one immense chandelier with I don’t know how many lights on it, hangs in the very centre. This is said to have been presented to the mosque in honour of M Ali by Philip of France some hundreds of years ago. I’m not well enough up in my history to verify or contradict the possibility of truth in the statement.

There’s a special place right on the centre of east end for the Sultan to pray when he goes to church. We were told one rather possible yarn about 2 half pillars protruding from the wall, one on either side of this small recess for the Sultan; they serve as guides for the blind so they know they are praying towards the east and to keep them from going into the Sultan’s praying place. Our guide explained all about the great Mohammed Ali – whose tomb he showed us – barred in at one side of the mosque together with an enormous amount of gold and precious jewels worth £500,000 he said – which I doubt.

For all the sacredness of the place and the reverence he professed for it he sold us some alabaster cut stones as good luck souvenirs from the ‘Great God and I hope he bring you safe after the war to your homes again’ – they are a mix up these people. Certainly religious most of ’em but not Christian and from what I’ve seen the majority are ‘not to be trusted as far as you could swing a bull by the tail’ as Mr Reiher would say.

We drove back to the city proper, had afternoon tea at Groppi’s, an up-to-date place, tables scattered round in the open air and with palms and trees all growing about: and very nice ice cream too! And we actually saw about 12 English or Australian ladies, perhaps nurses – and sent out and walked about the streets and into Esbekich Gardens in which is the YMCA. They have all sorts – a refreshment, sweets and tea place, a skating rink, library, concert platform, gym bars etc. We had tea at the ANZAC again and when we went to our room we found two Tommies in 2 other beds just down from the front with a prisoner for the citadel clink. They were able to tell us a fair bit of news and later on we went out with them to the Kursaal – a place of amusement, sort of musical comedy was on but the singing was all in French. French people (couldn’t call all of ’em actors) took the parts and it was rather funny – we thought we’d sooner try it than go to the pictures of which shows there are plenty.

At the Sultans Opera House which looks a fine place there are often good plays I believe but there was nothing doing for our special benefit. So we had to be content with a 2nd rate show. By the way the Sultan’s Palace is a bonny looking place and guarded at intervals along the front by well dressed sentries. Two are mounted, one each side of the entrance – and sit up straight holding a lance in their right hands and look very flash on their fine horses. We saw them changing guard once which was interesting – but I’ll have to tell you of lots of these places and ‘seeings’ when I come home.

In case I don’t tell you later, old good boy Jaick has stopped a bullet – our first to get wounded: he is not very badly hurt – though it might have been serious – got him in the side of jaw and didn’t do much damage. He’s in hospital down town here and Lance saw him yesterday for an hour or so. I hope to get in today to see him cos he may be moved away at any time. He was full of talk and news and quite cheerful and not in any pain apparently, has his jaw tied up of course: dare say Mrs H may be glad to know that cos no doubt she’ll soon have some word about him and may be worrying –  though he is sending a cable also to reassure her. Les, Herb and co are in it alright. Perhaps we are well off here but we are still mad enough to hope to go soon. Still our delay gave us the chance to get to Cairo for which I am very glad.

Had letters from Jim Cowan, Les Williams and Stan Prince the other day and one from old ‘Wolf’ Rowe this morning: also a card last week from Wit – must have been posted on the way: they only had a few hours stay in the west and although he got leave for 2 hours he missed his friends. That was tough luck. They were having a real good trip though cold weather and receiving good food and treatment all round.

A bit of a spell there before posting and it’s now Tuesday the 24th and we are off out this afternoon – start in about half an hour. Mail is just in and Joe Bilton is over now getting any of ours that are here: hope I’ll get a few. My parcels will have to be sent on now. Hope they come along safely. Expect so anyway. Saw old ‘Jaick H‘ the other day. He seemed pretty fair and cheerful and full of talk: pretty busy just now out here.  Of course you know they are not doing any fighting in ‘Gyp’ as Mr McN says so it’s alright. For all that a lot are going out. Poor old Lance is still left behind. I don’t know why I’m sure. If I have time I’ll send you an account of our second day on Cairo. We saw pyramids and sphinx – tell Elf  – and had our photos taken sitting on camels: I’ll get Lance to send a PC to you when they arrive which may be any day. I think I’ll post this and see if I can get another note written in case this goes astray.

Oo roo to ye all – we’ll be dinkum soldiers soon.

Still smiling.



Mosque of Mohammed Ali, Cairo
Interior of Mohammed Ali Mosque c 1900
Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
The Citadel, Cairo – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
Egypt – Pyramid & Sphinx – postcard from Spencer’s WW1 album
Groppi Cafe in 1924 courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Groppi’s remains a Cairo landmark